May Day: The Workers Movement

May 1, 2020 By Deepa Gopal
Deepa Gopal's picture

[Editor's Note: We bring back one of our timeless pieces on the history of May Day] 

Can you imagine working 14-18 hour days? Believe it or not, that was life in 19th century America and Europe.

The invention of the modern steam engine in 1775 had led to the creation of factories and mills for spinning yarn into clothes. Railroads were being built to transport raw materials and products. There was a lot of wealth in the hands of inventors, factory owners, and enterprising businessmen. 

However, there was one group that was largely neglected -- the working class, most of whom were immigrants. They worked long hours in factories, often under unsafe conditions and earned a meager wage.

Children as young as five had to work to help their family meet ends. They lived in shanty buildings with no running water or electricity, and diseases spread quickly in crowded, unsanitary neighborhoods.

The Eight-Hour Movement

It was becoming obvious to many that industrialization was only benefiting the wealthy factory owners.

By the mid-1850s, the eight-hour day movement started to gather steam with the slogan "eight hours work; eight hours relaxation; eight hours sleep." A class of people who called themselves socialists and anarchists started campaigning for workers' rights and equality in the workplace. The civil war in the 1860s that saw the end of slavery gave hope to the labor movement.

As expected, the factory owners banded together with the police, politicians, and the justice department to defend their interests. It was time for a showdown -- a movement that would start in America and sweep across the world.

The Haymarket Massacre

It began at the McCormick factory in Chicago. On May 3, 1886, several workers who were protesting for an eight-hour workday were killed.

Their leaders planned another rally for the following night at Haymarket Square. Just as people were heading out, someone stepped out of an alley and threw a bomb into the crowd.

The explosion killed seven policemen, who responded by firing into the crowd and killing and wounding many. The government cracked down on the movement, and the leaders -- none of whom had thrown the bomb, were held responsible, arrested and executed. The protests, however, continued, until a comprehensive law mandating eight-hour workdays was finally passed in 1937!

In 1890, the eight-hour day struggle went international with worldwide demonstrations on the anniversary of the Chicago massacre on May 1. It came to be known as May Day. 

It is interesting that while May Day is an official holiday in many countries, it is not recognized in the country where it began. The U.S marks labor day on the first Monday in September.

Sources:, BBC, Britannica